A Living Lens: First Stop, Rochester, N.Y.

“Everyone we knew read the Forverts. After my father was finished with it, my mother would use it to wash the floor, and one of my earliest memories is of walking on that sea of Yiddish letters…”

“My sister! The woman in this picture, right here, that’s my sister!”

“Miss, I’m 98 years old, and I just want to tell you that the Bintel Brief taught me what a lesbian is.”

Since April, I’ve been visiting bookstores, synagogues and other venues around the country in support of our new book, “A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life from the Pages of the Forward”. At nearly every stop, someone from the audience has stolen the show. I’ve been entertained, enlightened and harangued, brought nearly to my knees with laughter and to tears more than once. These stories — some devastating, others hilarious, nearly all poignant — are simply too good to keep to myself.

And so beginning this week, as I travel around the country on a tour organized by the Jewish Book Council in celebration of Jewish Book Month, I will be filing regular dispatches from the road. The first one is the most personal, and the longest, but don’t be alarmed. The rest of the entries will be short, unburdened by too much of my own prose. Instead, I’ll try to offer plain retellings of what I think are some very unplain questions, anecdotes and statements. Always the statements. Indeed, this tour has confirmed my long-held maxim that you know you’re at a Jewish event when the first person up at the mike at the Q&A begins, “I don’t have a question, I have a comment.”

October 21—Rochester, NY

The entries in this blog will be animated by history — that of the American Jewish community at large, of course, but also of our newspaper and the individuals who share their stories with me. So it seems particularly fitting that one of my first stops on the Jewish Book Fair circuit was to be in Rochester, one of my own ancestral lands.

My maternal grandmother, Anne Cohen, is part of the Aroeste family, who were among the many Sephardic immigrants to settle in Rochester at the turn of the last century. The family was from Monastir, a town in what was, when they left it, still the Ottoman Empire (This explains why my relatives always considered themselves “Turks,” even though Monastir — now called Bitola — is in present-day Macedonia.) In Rochester, they joined a small but established group of Jewish immigrants from Germany, the first of whom arrived in 1843, as well as a growing community of Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe.

Since my Rochester event represented a heritage trip of sorts, I invited my mother along (but only for this one event; as she assured everyone, “my daughter doesn’t usually take me anywhere.”) Before the event, she and I were taken to dinner by Andrea Miller and her husband, Dennis Kessler. Like me, Dennis is half-Ashkenazic, half-Sephardic. But, unlike me, he speaks both Yiddish and Ladino. (I speak neither and, yes, I realize how disappointed this makes both sides of my family, not to mention my employer.) It was impressive enough when Dennis began chatting with my mother in her family’s native tongue, but when he whipped out a book review he wrote for the Forverts in 1984… well, I threw in the towel.

At dinner, my mother told the story of our Rochester connection. When they married, my grandparents moved to Brooklyn, in part because my grandfather had a job as a presser in New York City’s garment industry. (Actually, both of my grandfathers were pressers, but that’s a story for another project:.) Each summer, my grandmother would leave her husband behind and take her three children to Rochester to visit her family. My mother, who has an astonishing eye for detail, remembered not only the exact address of her grandmother’s house — 54 Hanover Street — but the layout of the hallways and rooms, as well as some of her grandmother’s rules and traditions. The house abutted the Sephardic shul (see picture) and each Saturday afternoon, men and women would stream in for a Kiddush of brown hard-boiled eggs and burekas. “And oh,” my mother added, “it was my job every Friday afternoon to rip the toilet paper into squares, so people wouldn’t have to tear on Shabbat.”

When I got back to the office the next day, I received an e-mail from a man named Roberto Lovenheim:

Lovenheim’s father then zoomed out from my family to describe what happened to the city’s broader Jewish communities:

Lovenheim’s account is confirmed by a wonderful book given to me by one of its authors, Michael Peres, chair of biomedical photographic communications at the Rochester Institute of Technology. The book includes more than 300 pictures and artifacts, many of which were family heirlooms donated for an exhibit at the Rochester JCC — including the few highlighted in this entry.

For more, visit: Faces of Jewish Rochester.

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

A Living Lens: First Stop, Rochester, N.Y.

Thank you!

This article has been sent!